Nikita: Successful rehash of a tired genre

Amidst the endless list of action programs that rely on tired clichés to reach audiences, there is one that stands out – the CW’s Nikita.

But it stands out for all the right reasons.  For one, the premise is intriguing, if not slightly familiar from the film and TV series that preceded it.

Nikita (Maggie Q) is a rogue agent seeking vengeance against her former employer, the mercenary organization that killed her former lover.  She recruits a young woman named Alex (the up-and-coming Lyndsy Fonseca) to infiltrate the organization, known as “Division,” and pass information to her about its ongoing missions.  We learn about this mostly through the use of flashbacks, which the writers use generously to inform us of the wealth of character backlog, i.e., things that would be too boring for the viewer to have to sit through in real-time.  The overall effect is that after nine episodes, we feel like we know the histories and vulnerabilities of both major and minor characters, as well as the cold calculations of the show’s antagonists.

The antagonist, of course, is Division, led by daunting schemer Percy (Xander Berkeley) and his right-hand man Michael (Shane West).  We have good reason to see the empire defeated – it leeches off the false hope of near-death Americans and rehabilitates them – the only catch being that they have to carry out dubious missions with the utmost loyalty, or face being “cancelled.”  Nikita, and vicariously the viewer, is eager to witness firsthand Percy’s disgraceful fall from the helm of Division.

Nikita has no pretensions about what it is – an action-saturated spy saga.  It doesn’t matter that some of the action sequences are laughably far-fetched – Nikita is a tech-savvy polyglot who consistently evades the pursuit of countless Division agents – what matters is that we willingly suspend our disbelief for a show that is otherwise a lot smarter than it lets on.

The problem is that the overarching narrative seems to promise so much with hardly a glimpse of future fulfillment.  Any chance that Nikita gets to put a serious dent in Division’s well-being, she chooses instead to take a pass, perhaps out of adherence to some unwritten code.  You know, the code of honour between spies and samurai and cowboys in virtually every picture where there are enemies who respect each other.  It is here that the series’ reliance on cliché might get the best of it.  Unlike 24 and arguably Lost, which had a perceivable arch across seasons (the latter seeming much more arbitrary), Nikita seems to be going nowhere fast.  The writers seem to acknowledge this in an episode where Nikita’s expertise is being sought after by a rival agency.  “If it doesn’t end with Division, when does it end?” asks a rival spy.

I’ll let you know when I get there,” she replies.

It’s more the show’s compartmentalized episodes that will keep viewers watching.  Each more or less centres around a Division mission which Nikita must collect information about and stop.  One requires recruits to hold their own after being abducted by “terrorists,” while another is a “cancellation” in disguise when an incompetent recruit is told to blow up a building.

Indeed, what is suggested to us at the outset is hardly ever what ends up being true.  It is the writers’ adept use of these twists that make the show so entertaining.  One memorable instance of a plot twist involves using peanut butter oil as a weapon.  Go figure.

Nor does it hurt that the heroine this time around is portrayed by Maggie Q, an actress familiar with kicking ass on screen since the latest of the Mission: Impossible and Die Hard installments.  She fits the part here because of the coldness expected of an indignant ex-spy, planning as seamlessly as an architect.  Even her dialogue is pithy and cryptic.  It’s when her emotions come through that she’s at her weakest, delivering lines like the expressionless face of CSI: Miami’s Emily Procter.  But luckily the script has her in pragmatic, strategizing mode long enough that emotional touches are more often reserved for other key characters like Alex.   As far as femme fatales are concerned, she’s a spectacle of a woman.

At least for the genre, it’s a perfect fit.

Season 1, Episodes 1-9:  4/5


Season 1 continues Thursday December 2nd

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